08/01/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

What I Learned by Eating Less Meat

My friends at Vegan Grand Rapids were the ones who encouraged me to eat less meat.

Always an animal lover, I found as I got older, I had more and more guilt knowing how food got to my plate. It's easy for us to not think about what goes into getting meat made into dishes, to literally not see "how the sausage is made."

For a long time, I tried to justify how I could love animals so much and still eat meat. I came up with the clever retort, "Well, if I were in the jungle, a leopard wouldn't care about my rights." That kept me in denial for a good few years, but over the past year, every time I ate meat, I felt this guilt and sadness in me. I thought about my two dogs and how certain cultures eat dog, but Americans do not. I began questioning why certain animals were safe from consumption and others were not. I then thought about my two dogs -- two of the things I love most in this world -- and was completely heartbroken thinking about them going to the slaughter.

When I met with my Vegan GR friends, they didn't know the internal struggle I was having as an omnivore. I always viewed eating meat as an all or nothing thing, so I never brought it up to them. I didn't want them to be disappointed in me or look at me like a failure. What I learned from them, however, is that people will always judge you no matter what you do, but eating less meat is always the better choice.

At this point, I would say my diet is about 80 or 90 percent vegetarian with vegan items mixed in when I can. I have actually taken out more meat than I initially expected. But any change is not without its struggles or learning experiences. Let me tell you, I have learned a lot from eating significantly less meat and making conscious choices with what I eat.

I learned it's hard, but not impossible

One of my biggest faults is that I'm a people pleaser. My biggest reservation was, "What if someone goes to the trouble of making me a meal?" I have found those are really the only times I will eat meat. I have also learned I have a choice when it comes to these things as well. I can load up my plate with other items instead or even bring a black bean burger to throw on the grill if need be. Chances are, if I don't bring attention to it, nobody will notice.

I learned fast food joints can be troublesome

I remember stopping to eat at Wendy's on a trip and being able to only eat fries. Not the healthiest option. I was at the beginning of my diet switch, so I ended up getting a chicken wrap, making a mental note that Wendy's does not have any vegetarian-friendly options. That doesn't mean all fast food places are off limits.There are a few that offer vegetarian and vegan options. Add that to my learning experience: look at menus.

I learned factory farming is cruel, but it is also horrible for the environment

Obviously, factory farming is cruel to animals. They spend their entire lives in isolation or cramped quarters and the slaughtering is not always quick and painless for the animals. The industry is also horrible on the environment as well. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a dairy cow can produce up to 120 pounds of manure a day, which is the equivalent to the waste 20-40 humans produce per day. Additionally, it takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. The carbon footprint for the industry is huge, too. Turns out, cheeseburgers do about as much damage as SUVs, with Open the Future saying, "...the greenhouse gas emissions arising every year from the production and consumption of cheeseburgers is roughly the amount emitted by 6.5 million to 19.6 million SUVs."

I learned meat can hide from you

I made this mistake at a pizza buffet. Chicken blends in really well with cheese when they're both on a pizza. There are also a number of products that are seem like they may be vegan or vegetarian friendly, but at a closer glance, they are not. Many restaurants don't take vegetarianism and veganism into consideration and will use the same tongs or friers for meat and non-meat items or have your order touching a meat-filled order.

I learned like-minded people will help you

I'm just starting out, so I still have a lot to learn. Luckily, I have great people encouraging me and giving me resources to further my learning. Sure, I will upset people by not going 100 percent vegetarian or vegan, but the people who are in my life have been nothing but supportive. And they will be with me if and when I make the steps to cut meat out completely.

I learned it's OK if you do the best you can

I'm doing better than I thought I would, and I'm really happy with myself so far. I think 80 and 90 percent are good numbers. Other people won't, but if everyone took one or two days to cut meat out from their diets, there would be a huge difference. Meatless Mondays have gotten extremely popular and just having those has made a difference. Instead of telling people it's all or nothing, I think encouraging people to go from 21 meals with meat to 15 or 10 meals with meat or something along those lines still has a positive impact.